Hawaii Earthquake Fact Check: Yes, Earthquake Happened; No, Law Wouldn't Have Applied [UPDATE]

05/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

During yesterday's interview of President Barack Obama by Fox News anchor Bret Baier, the president contended that the health care reform component that's come to be known as the "Louisiana Purchase" has been misunderstood as some sort of special deal for Mary Landrieu. Instead, Obama said that it's intended as a measure to bring federal resources to bear during a health care crisis brought on by a natural disaster. Obama references a 2006 earthquake in Hawaii as the sort of event that would put the measure in play. (It wouldn't have, see below.) [It's even more complicated! See UPDATE, below.]

When Obama mentioned the 2006 earthquake, I can honestly say that what I did was think to myself, "Hmmm. I don't remember a 2006 earthquake in Hawaii." What I didn't do, however, was immediately run to write a bunch of frenzied blog posts about how Obama was "making up stuff," because the Internet remembers a lot of things that I don't. So I checked. Hey, look at this:

The 2006 Hawaii earthquake was an offshore earthquake occurring 10 km (6 miles) southwest from Puakō, Hawai'i, United States, on Sunday October 15, 2006 at 7:07:49 AM local time (17:07:49 (UTC)). It measured 6.7 on the moment magnitude scale, and was located at 19°52′41″N 155°56′06″W / 19.878°N 155.935°W / 19.878; -155.935, at a depth of 38.9 km (24.2 miles). It produced several aftershocks, including one that measured a magnitude of 6.0 seven minutes after the main shock. The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center measured a four-inch (102 mm) tsunami on the coast of the Big Island.

Modified Mercalli Intensity was measured at Force VII-VIII on the western side of the island of Hawaii, and Force VI on eastern Maui. Force V shaking intensity was felt all the way to Oahu, where patches of moderate damage were reported.

The earthquake caused property damage, injuries, landslides, power outages, and airport delays and closures. Governor Linda Lingle issued a disaster declaration for the entire state.

This didn't escape the attention of President George W. Bush, who made a subsequent disaster declaration and released federal funds for the relief effort.

The problem with Obama's contention wasn't that he was inventing an earthquake, it's that the way Hawaii was impacted by the earthquake would not have triggered this provision. Let's look at the relevant language from the health care bill:

''(2) In this subsection, the term 'disaster-recovery FMAP adjustment State' means a State that is one of the 50 States or the District of Columbia, for which, at any time during the preceding 7 fiscal years, the President has declared a major disaster under section 401 of the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act and determined as a result of such disaster that every county or parish in the State warrant individual and public assistance or public assistance from the Federal Government under such Act and for which-- ''(A) in the case of the first fiscal year (or part of a fiscal year) for which this subsection applies the State, the Federal medical assistance percentage determined for the State for the fiscal year without regard to this subsection and subsection (y), is less than the Federal medical assistance percentage determined for the State for the preceding fiscal year after the application of only subsection (a) of section 5001 of Public Law 111-5 (if applicable to the preceding fiscal year) and without regard to this subsection, subsection (y), and subsections (b) and (c) of section 5001 of Public Law 111-5, by at least 3 percentage points; and ''(B) in the case of the second or any succeeding fiscal year for which this subsection applies to the State, the Federal medical assistance percentage determined for the State for the fiscal year without regard to this subsection and subsection (y), is less than the Federal medical assistance percentage determined for the State for the preceding fiscal year under this subsection by at least 3 percentage points.

Individual Assistance
(Assistance to individuals and households):

Hawaii County

Public Assistance
(Assistance to State and local governments and certain private nonprofit organizations for emergency work and the repair or replacement of disaster-damaged facilities):

Hawaii, Maui Counties and City and County of Honolulu. (Categories C-G).

Debris removal and emergency protective measures (Categories A and B), including direct Federal assistance, for the counties of Hawaii, Honolulu, Kauai, and Maui, and the City of Honolulu.

Count the counties, and there's an omission: Kalawao County. As pointed out on this fact check, Kalawao is easy to forget about: it's population is only 147 people and it is the poorest county in the United States. But, it exists and, as such, it would not have triggered this provision in the bill.

By my read, Obama got this wrong, and a lot of people would have found themselves on firm ground to say so, had they not decided to pretend the earthquake never happened in the first place. Again, Google: it exists! (HINT: Try "2006 earthquake Hawaii", maybe!)

On the matter of Kalawao County, some further complications. Let me toss this to Jonathan Tilove of the New Orleans Times-Picayune, who suggests that Hawaii may qualify under this provision after all:

It's Kalawao County, the remote Kalaupapa outcropping on the northern coast of the island of Molokai that, beginning in 1866, was a place of exile and treatment for people with Hansen's disease, the malady commonly known as leprosy. This was the renowned site of the "leper colony" where Father Damien, who was sainted last year, ministered to the sick, contracted the disease and died. In 1905, Kalawao was made a county unto itself under the stewardship of the Hawaii Department of Public Health, and that it will remain, at least until the death of the last of the 19 surviving patients -- whose average age is 78, and the youngest of whom is 69.

The Hawaii Department of Human Services is well aware how Kalawao County complicates the state's claim for what Trinity Tomsic, a Medicaid analyst with Federal Funds Information for States, estimates would be about $58 million in Medicaid money in 2011.

"We're looking at the situation with that fifth county," said Toni Schwartz, spokeswoman for the department and its director, Lillian Koller, who Schwartz said remains "optimistic we will find a way to get the FMAP provision."

Also important:

In addition to the 19 former sufferers from Hansen's disease -- none of whom has an active case now -- there are nearly 100 other inhabitants of Kalawao County, all Health Department or National Parks Service employees. Beyond the settlement in Kalaupapa, the rest of the county is a national park. When the last survivor dies, the county will become a fully functioning national park.

Hansen's disease is now rare and treatable. In the past, the most seriously ill were sometimes sent to a treatment center in Carville, now relocated to Baton Rouge.

No new patients are permitted at Kalaupapa, and visitors are allowed only by invitation or on a guided tour.nm

While officially a county, Kalawao can't tax or zone. It has no elected official. The "mayor" is Dr. Chiome Fukino, director of the Hawaii Department of Health. The appointed sheriff is now a park ranger, because none of the Hansen's population is up to the job.

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